Psalm 41; Exodus 35; Matthew 27:1-10

Originally published 3/30/2016. Revised and updated 3/30/2018

Psalm 41: Our psalmist, writing in David’s voice, opens with general thanksgiving for God’s protection:
May he be called happy in the land.
And do not deliver him to his enemies’ maw. (2).

He moves quickly to a general prayer for healing and then to a specific request for his own healing:
May the LORD sustain him on the couch of pain.
—You transformed his whole bed of illness,
I said, ‘LORD, grant me grace,
heal me, though I offended You.’ (3, 4)

It’s clear that David’s illness is severe and that his enemies eagerly await his passing:
My enemies said evil of me:
‘When will he die and his name be lost?'”  (5)

Even their ostensibly kind visits to his bedside are not only insincere but have an evil agenda: And should one come to visit,
his heart spoke a lie. (6)

Worse, this visitor is all too happy to spread the lie that David is near death:
He gathered up mischief, went out, spoke abroad
…[saying] evil of me, “Some nasty thing is lodged in him.
As he lies down, he will not rise again. (8).

David cannot even rely on the one friend whom he had he trusted. In his illness, he has been abandoned by everyone.  Worse, he is the focus of corrupt plots and public lies.  One can only imagine the hatchet job the modern media would be able to do here:
Even my confidant, in whom I did trust,
who ate my bread,
was utterly devious with me. (10)

So, David understandably asks for healing by the only one in whom he can trust: “And You, O Lord, grant me grace, raise me up,” (11a). But his motives are not as pure as we had hoped as he concluded the supplication with “that I may pay them back.” (11b) In fact, David puts God to the test, stating that if God heals him,
In this I shall know You desire me—
that my enemy not trumpet his conquest of me.
” (12)

I’m not convinced this is a prayer we should offer on our sickbed. Jesus instructed us to love our enemies. And his healing power made it clear that illness was not the direct result of personal sin. But if nothing else, this psalm demonstrates once again that we can bare our deepest and darkest wishes to God.

Happily, I have never been in the dire situation described in this psalm and it’s doubtless more endemic to kings and leaders. (Shakespeare is chockablock with plotting around the king’s deathbed.)  But there’s still a lesson here for us: In the end, there is only One in whom we can place all our trust:
And I, in my innocence, You sustained me
and made me stand before You forever.
 (13).

As the general prayer at the beginning of this psalm reminds us, [“Happy who looks to the poor.  On the day of evil may the LORD make him safe.” (1)] God’s steadfastness is for all of us: leader, king, or desperately poor.  Whether we are desperately ill or when all around us are inconstant or worse, God is constant; God will indeed sustain us through the valley of the shadow of death.

Exodus 35: Now that Moses has received these extremely detailed instructions from God while he was up on the mountain, he comes down to communicate them to all Israel, saying, “These are the things that the Lord has commanded you to do.” (1) Not surprisingly, the first instruction is all about obeying the Sabbath. The penalty for breaking Sabbath was harsh indeed: “whoever does any work on [the Sabbath] shall be put to death.” (2)

While I am certainly no Bible scholar, it’s becoming obvious that another group of priests (who certainly have strong feelings about keeping the Sabbath) are writing this portion of Exodus.

Once again, we encounter the details of the material requirements for the Tabernacle and there is a general plea for skilled labor to help build it:”All who are skillful among you shall come and make all that the Lord has commanded:” (10) These authors are far more succinct in describing the  the Tabernacle, its furnishings, and the priestly vestments than the endless detail that was covered in the earlier chapters, which I believe were written by others.

Rather, there seems to be an emphasis on the people who will participate in this enormous project rather than on construction details.  This time rather than being forced to hand over their possessions, the people are asked to give willingly, which they do happily: “And they came, everyone whose heart was stirred, and everyone whose spirit was willing, and brought the Lord’s offering to be used for the tent of meeting, and for all its service, and for the sacred vestments.” (21)

There is certainly greater enthusiasm as these authors again and again speak of willing hearts, “So they came, both men and women; all who were of a willing heart brought brooches and earrings and signet rings and pendants, all sorts of gold objects, everyone bringing an offering of gold to the Lord.” (22)

In this account of building the Tent of Meeting, Moses introduces Bezalel and Oholiab, who will be overseeing the project, as being God-ordained for the task: “Then Moses said to the Israelites: See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel [and God] has filled him with divine spirit, with skill, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft.” (30) And they have been imbued with talent that has come directly from God, who “has filled them [Bezalel and Oholiab] with skill to do every kind of work done by an artisan or by a designer or by an embroiderer…” (35)

Frankly, I find this version of building the Tabernacle more congenial than the earlier sections because of its emphasis on the willing hearts of the people and God’s ordination of the skilled artisans who will carry out this project. It seems much more like a collaboration between Israel and God rather than a project that has been commanded from on high. This is basic psychology. People then and people today will give willingly from their hearts when they feel a part of God’s project rather than having it imposed on them from on high.

Matthew 27:1-10: Today is Good Friday. It is certainly appropriate that we read of Jesus’ appearance before Pilate.

The conspirators have a single goal, which they themselves cannot carry out, so “the chief priests and the elders of the people conferred together against Jesus in order to bring about his death.” (1) Jesus is handed over to Pilate, who happens to be in Jerusalem primarily to keep the peace during the tumultuous Passover. I’m sure he’d much rather be enjoying the Roman comforts of his digs up north in Caesarea.

Matthew interrupts the Jesus story to update us on the Betrayer: “When Judas, his betrayer, saw that Jesus was condemned, he repented and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and the elders.” (3) Judas is deeply regretful about what he has done, telling the officials, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood.” (4). But they will not accept back the infamous 30 pieces of silver he was paid. Judas throws the money on the floor and “he went and hanged himself.” (5)

So, why does Matthew, alone among the Gospel writers,  present us with a repentant Judas? I think because he wants to communicate two things. First, he’s making it clear that Satan took over his heart and made Judas just one more instrumentality of the inevitable course of events of the Passion story. Second, I think Matthew is suggesting that anyone of us could have been Judas. It’s just not that difficult to act on our darkest impulses and then come to regret our actions later.

The chief priests pick up the silver that’s laying on floor, but with their inevitable self-righteousness announce,“It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” (6) For Matthew this is the final hypocrisy. The officials intimate that since Judas accepted the money it is now untouchable when in fact it is the blood money that is actually on their heads—not Judas’s.

Matthew tells us they used the money to buy a potter’s field to bury the unsanctified dead, allowing him once again to assert how Scripture was fulfilled, this time, he says, from Jeremiah. Even though Matthew says it’s Jeremiah, the actual prophecy appears to be from Zechariah. Naturally, theological controversy has ensued with all kinds of creative ideas for explaining Matthew’s apparent error. As an engineer, I prefer the simplest explanation: Matthew made a mistake. But of course for biblical inerrantists, that’s unacceptable.

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